We left Erbil in the early hours of Friday morning and got back to the UK later that day. Flying into Istanbul in the morning sun, the city looked like it always does: beautiful, mysterious, calm. Looking out of the window I wondered what the future is for Turkey in general and this city in particular.

It is hard to imagine how any deal can be done between Turkey and the European Union on entry when Turkey falls so far short of standards in religious and media freedom (to cite just two problems). Recent tightening of the grip from Erdogan cannot have come as a surprise. Yet, despite the suicide bombing in Ankara last week and recent violence in Istanbul itself, it didn't occur to me that a bombing might take place there today. These conflicts are interconnected.

Who was it who said “travels narrows the mind”? OK, that wasn't the original. But, although travel broadens the mind to a wider world and the complexities within it, it can simultaneously narrow the mind by compelling the traveler to think that they have now understood it. There is a danger in me thinking I now have a 'take' on the situation in Iraq, both politically and in humanitarian terms, but this is bound to be confounded or complemented by the experience of others.

For example, we hear the story of how Yazidis were helped to escape from Sanjin Mountain by the Peshmerga. Giles Fraser referenced this in his article in the Guardian written during the visit. On our return we then hear other stories of not-so-noble actions by the Peshmerga, including the threat to shoot Yazidis who got in their way. The whole picture is neither simple nor comprehensible in consistent categories.

Five days in Iraq brought our group, organised and brilliantly led by Christian Aid, face to face with the political and the personal. Stories told by people sitting in front of you cannot be denied. The statistics and rhetoric of politicians cannot simply be dismissed because they are not rooted in the personal stories of individuals and families (although you do come away thinking that some politicians ought to get out more). If anything, the situation becomes more complex, more difficult to comprehend, than before.

In our five days we heard stories of horror and kindness, of cruelty and mercy, of despair and hope, of wishful optimism and hopeful realism. Yet, these stories were not the totality – they did not tell the whole story.

For example, the Syrian refugees we met were Sunni Muslim. So, where does their react meant by Daesh/ISIS fit into rhetoric about genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shias? It is clear that Daesh brutality is meted out against anyone, and not purely targeted against non-Muslims. Indeed, it is hard to see what is religious about Daesh at all. I think those analysts are right who say the world is hitting the wrong target by thinking Daesh has anything to do with religion at all, but everything to do with sadism and power.

The abiding preoccupation for my own mind in the light of this trip (and the return to the political rhetoric of the UK) is twofold: (a) can – or should – Iraq be held together as a single country, given the evaporation of trust between communities and the inequitable distribution of finance and resources between Baghdad and, for example, Erbil? (b) the need for humanitarian aid to be provided in considerably greater quantities even if the answer to the political question above is 'no'.

A much-repeated phrase used by a UK government official in Erbil at the beginning of our visit (when we were even more ignorant than we are now) was that the Iraqis “have to sort this out themselves”. That phrase has nagged me all week. Why is it their responsibility to sort out what they did not create? Why did that thinking not hold sway when outsiders were considering bombing the place to bits? And, in that context, why is the amount of money being spent on reconstruction and humanitarian assistance such a tiny fraction of what was spent on the military campaigns?

Yes, I know that the idea of people taking responsibility for their future – especially given that any future depends on trust, relationships, common vision, etc. – is important and, in this context, more cultural than political. But, Iraqis bereft of money, homes, work, education, social infrastructure and (in some cases) hope are now being told they hold their future in their hands. It doesn't quite wash. Look at the numbers: only 9% of humanitarian aid money promised by governments has been paid.

So, Philip Hammond (UK Foreign Secretary) had talks in Baghdad and Erbil on Thursday – we found out from his Twitter feed while there – and he is very positive about the UK's contribution. He might be right. But, the story looks different when listened to through the ears of those on the ground where political rhetoric can look a little imaginative.

The prism through which I now reflect on the experience in Iraq is more multifaceted than before I went. Any judgements must be coloured by humility and the knowledge that impressions are partial. However, the abiding question is one I and colleagues will need to pursue further now we are back home is this: what credibility does a policy off enabling people (Syrian refugees and Iraqi internally displaced people) to “return to their homes” when their homes no longer exist, when the social infrastructure (including health, education and society) has broken down, when communities can no longer trust each other, and when such unspeakable violence has been done not just to people, but to hope itself?

Mercy, hope and generosity are being seen in the sheer humanitarian care being taken of such vulnerable people and communities by religious bodies – we met UK Sikhs delivering aid to Muslims and Yazidis in Duhok – who do not discriminate in whom they help. We saw this particularly in a clinic run by a church in Erbil. But, reconciliation will be hard won when the common enemy of Daesh has been removed.

 

Our last day in Iraq. We leave Erbil early tomorrow morning. All credit to Christian Aid's Louise Finan and Laura Taylor for putting together and leading an excellent visit to this tragic land. Four days is not long enough to get a grip on things, but the programme shone light on a number of interconnected issues whilst allowing us to put names and faces to the statistics.

For example, this morning we joined Christian Aid's partner REACH to visit two families in the suburbs of Erbil. The first were Syrian refugees from Aleppo. The young woman, holding her very young son, struggled as she described the beheading of her big brother in July 2013. Her two teenage sisters work in a factory in order to bring money in for the family which has no other means of support or sustenance – they are 15 and 17 years old. Her nephew joined us – he had seen the body of his beheaded father and was traumatised. Her husband is missing, presumed dead. Her parents are in poor health and they all live together. They would like to go back to Aleppo, but it looks like there is barely any Aleppo left for them to return to. REACH has enabled the young mother to train as a hairdresser and start a small business. She has considered getting smuggled across the Aegean, but her family insist she would have to leave her young son behind. She is pessimistic about her son's future.

They also believe that Syria is now too fractured for peaceful reconciliation to be possible.

The second family fled from Mosul when Daesh/ISIS moved in. They were clear: Daesh kill anyone and everyone. They destroy everything. What will there be to go back to?

OK, they are the human face of the stuff we see in the news or hear chucked around in tabloid debates about “migrants”. We went from there to meet the Director General of the Kurdistan Ministry of the Interior's Joint Crisis Coordination Centre. His story was consistent with those told by other, more independent interlocutors (including from the UK and UN):

  • Public salaries have not been paid for five months.
  • Only 9% of financial support promised by international partners has so far got through.
  • Baghdad is not passing on the 17% of its budget revenue it has agreed to do.
  • There appears to be no exit strategy for the post-ISIS era.
  • While resources are diminishing, the population in Kurdistan has increased by 30% because of IDPs and refugees.
  • Capacity exists – funding does not.
  • The situation is unsustainable, the infrastructure is under huge pressure, and a bigger crisis might lie ahead.
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government wants people voluntarily to return to their homes, to retain the mix of minorities, and get international help in creating peaceful reconciliation.
  • They need financial and technical assistance from the international community, but if these go via Baghdad, they will never reach Kurdistan.

Our visits concluded as, coincidentally, US Secretary of State John Kerry described ISIS as having “committed genocide” against Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. This is a little bewildering. ISIS – Sunni Muslims – have been murdering Sunnis, too. According to the people we have met this week, ISIS is indiscriminate in their savagery, even though they target Christians, Yazidis and Shia in particular. Genocide is to be legally defined, not politically. What is not in doubt is the sheer horror and destructiveness of what ISIS is doing to ordinary people whose lives were destroyed in the most brutal way.

Now, all this begs wider questions. I will get back to them in due course. But, the dominant question in my own mind just now is what reconstruction in Iraq might look like … and whether Iraq can survive.

Which makes the humanitarian work going on here all the more impressive. No guarantees – just commitment.

 

I am in Northern Iraq with a small group under the auspices of Christian Aid. Yesterday morning we met a group involved in reconstruction and development work in Duhok before splitting into three groups to visit a Christian refugee family, a Yazidi refugee family and a Syrian Sunni refugee family.

I went with two colleagues to visit the Syrian Muslims. We sat in their rented home and listened to their story. Having joined in the demonstrations against the Assad regime in 2011, they were forced to flee once the violence began. They left Damascus, stayed in the border with Iraq in a camp, hoping they would be able to return to their home before long. In 2012 they gave up and ended up in Duhok. They were clear that they are Syrian first and Kurdish second.

Their youngest son is ill and cannot get adequate treatment. He is fourteen years old and has had no schooling since 2012. His father is not allowed to work. There is another son and two daughters. They want to return to Syria, but they have no hope. Each day is hemmed in by unimaginable and unmeasurable helplessness and hopelessness. Their hospitality was great, their hope tiny. Their dignity was intact.

How do you live hopefully, one day at a time, when there is nothing to do, no work, no education for your children, no home to return to, and no idea if some sort of solution might come in one month, one year, one decade, or never?

This visit was followed in the evening by a meeting with the Iraq director of MAG (Mines Advisory Group). They have been here for 23 years, clearing mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from the 1980s (Iran-Iraq War), the 1990s (Gulf War), the 2000s (now Daesh), and Saddam mining his own country along borders. There are 20 million mines in 3,500 minefields. This has, for example, turned the breadbasket of Iraq – the Nineveh Plain – into a disaster zone (adding to the desertion of almost the entire Christian population under Daesh). Despite more than 300 mine clearance engineers working continuously, 2015 saw 72 civilian casualties, 42 of them fatal. In Sinjar alone there were 28 civilian casualties, 8 of them fatal.

How are people to “go home” when their homes have been destroyed, social infrastructure wiped out, and the only source of sustenance – the land – mined?

What is most clear here is the destruction of trust between communities that previously had cohabited for centuries. It is hard to see a future.

More anon.

 

There was a short debate in the House of Lords this afternoon on BBC Charter renewal. Allotted one hour, this meant that each speaker was limited to one minute. In the event the debate ended after 45 minutes with a good deal of frustration about process.

I wished to make three essential points for consideration, but, having agreed with points made strongly by previous speakers, limited myself to one.

There was strong support for (a) the independence of the BBC from government or political interference – an independence that must be guaranteed by establishing renewed governance that does not allow for a majority of board members to be appointed by government, (b) proper funding of the BBC by the licence fee, (c) transparency in the BBC's decision making – therefore, no deals between a pressurised Director General and the Chancellor over licence fee or who pays for pensioners, and (d) continuation of the public service remit.

I simply made a point no one else was going to make. It wasn't a matter of special pleading – were I an atheist, I would make the same point.

The BBC has three Reithian 'purposes': inform, entertain, educate. I proposed a fourth: interpret. The world needs to be interpreted, not just reported. And to do this effectively, the lens of those being reported to needs to be looked through and understood. This means that religion needs to be taken more seriously by the BBC in its future shape and remit. Religion is a primary motivator of individuals and communities, inspiring and informing their political, economic, ethical and social behaviour (probably also their emotional engagement with what is going on in the world and in them).

The BBC, therefore, needs more religion, not less. Ofcom expressed concern about just this in July 2015.

(I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and, along with others, remain concerned about this.)

I chair a media trust that goes by the name of Sandford St Martin. We reward excellence in religious broadcasting and advocate for the same in a range of different ways.

One of the most important decisions to be made in the UK in the next year or so will be about the future of the BBC as its Charter is renewed.

The Sandford St Martin Trust submission to the BBC Charter Renewal consultation can be read in full here and focuses particularly on the public service remit, seeing religious broadcasting as a touchstone of how this remit is fulfilled.

The Trust's submisison can be read here.

 

It was announced yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited the Primates of the Anglican Communion to Canterbury in January 2016 to discuss the (futures) of their relationships and organisation.

Note that he has 'invited' them. This has been translated into media-speak as 'summonsed'. First, he cannot summons them or demand that they come. He is not a pope. So, the translation from invitation to summons is either lazy journalese or deliberate obfuscation.

Secondly, contrary to much reporting, he has not decided on these futures, but has put everyhting on the table in order that the Primates together can discuss and decide on their future shape.

What is so hard to understand about this?

It seems to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown some clear leadership here by (a) insisting that the continuing and debilitating Communion issues now be confronted and addressed and resolved, and (b) that the Primates now take responsibility for the consequences of the positions they take. No more posturing or game-playing. The need for clarity is paramount and the time has come.

I am writing this sitting on a plane waiting to leave for New York for a conference on religious violence and persecution. That is the context in which some of the internal preoccupations of the Communion find their place. Our energies need in future to go into the big issues that affect the world. (I'll write more when I get the time…)

 

There is a fundamental question underlying responses to the current migration and refugee challenge in Europe. In the question behind the title of Primo Levi's arresting book, it is simply: what is a man? What is a human being?

If the answer is that a human being is valued according to their economic contribution, potential or liability, then that will have a profound influence in shaping our response, both emotionally and intellectually.

If, on the other hand, a human being has inherent value – not simply because she exists or is valued by those who say she has value, but because she is made in the image of God and infinitely loved – then the response will be consistent with that. A Christian response must begin with a biblical understanding of what makes a human person – everything else has to flow from that.

It sounds a bit academic to ask a question of (what I call) theological anthropology in the face of such immediate need, but it is important that we do. It is important that our political leaders are clear about their answer to this question and why they think what they do think.

Taking this seriously will help us to distinguish between a response dominated by cost benefit analyses and one shaped by a humanitarian assumption that chooses to make a choice of principle and then pays the price (socially, financially, economically, and so on). Yes, the economic and social questions need to be raised and faced; but, do they follow a committed response to immediate need or precede it?

When listening, viewing or reading coverage of the current challenge and political responses to it, I think this is the question to ask in order to understand what motivates the response.

(I wrote this while listening to a lively debate at the EKD (German) Kirchenkonferenz on what statement to make about these matters. The statement will be published next week and I will publish it on this blog as soon as I get the final published version.)

 

Five days into August already and still haven’t got through a single one of the books lined up for the catch-up month. Oh well.

It could be this that is narking me; but, on the other hand, it might be that the world is going mad.

Three things for starters:

1. Apparently, the Minister for Local Government is going to write to the bishops of the Church of England today asking us to support longer Sunday trading hours. According to the Daily Telegraph, the letter will say:

The government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.

As the law stands, only the smallest shops are allowed to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, a law which came into force in 1994 after a long struggle by the business community.

The justification (according to news reports – we haven’t actually received the promised letter yet) is that this will limit supermarkets and revive the high street. The aim is noble – consider the action by dairy farmers yesterday: it costs them more to produce milk than they get when it is sold. But, this, once again, confirms that we have become a market society, driven by consumer economics, rather than a market economy, driven by the need for the economy to serve society. In other words, we now define our society in purely economic terms.

The alternative would be to restrict Sunday trading rather than expand it. This would restore to society the notion of a common sabbath and create space for common rest – the possibility for remembering who we are and why we are here. We are not born to shop.

A losing battle, maybe; but one worth scrapping over for the sake of questioning what sort of a society we wish to be, rather than simply (and unquestioningly) accepting the society we have become.

2. In a classic example of loaded reporting, the Guardian draws attention to consideration in Wales for re-shaping the teaching of Religious Education in schools. This is how the article begins:

For a long time, religious education has been about as unloved and neglected as a crumbling old church. Several people and organisations (some, admittedly, with a vested interest in its continuation) have warned in recent years that it has never been more needed, and this week it emerged that the Welsh government is considering an overhaul of the subject.

Huw Lewis, the Welsh government’s minister for education and skills told the Cardiff parliament that RE should be renamed, “[transforming] it into the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum – where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship”. He added: “We really need to allow young people the space and the time, within the school curriculum, to consider fundamental issues of faith and of citizenship and of the meaning of freedom.”

RE, long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects, has suffered over the years. A 2013 report by Ofsted found that more than half of schools were failing to teach the subject adequately

How many untested attestations does that contain? Staggering. How long is “a long time”? Where is the evidence that is has been unloved and neglected? Why compare it to a “crumbling old church” rather than a crumbling something else? Which organisations have a “vested interest in its continuation” – and why “admittedly”?

Is it not conceivable that the “vested interest” might be an intelligent argument or interest for the sake of the common good? Is it not remotely possible that, at a time when we need more religious education in order to understand the world and its people, we should be arguing for better teaching and learning rather than the dilution of it? Does “long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects” reflect simply the rather embarrassing prejudices of the journalist who wrote this stuff? Shouldn’t we expect better (of both RE teaching and journalism)?

If numbers fall because teaching is poor, then, surely, the answer is to improve the teaching and learning. As the media trust I chair keeps arguing in the sphere of broadcasting, we need more religious literacy in this conflicted world, not less. Popularity has little to do with it.

3. Giles Fraser redeems the Guardian by concisely putting his finger on a key question that is – understandably – annoying the government. Migration (inwards only) was a vexed matter during the general election. If media reporting is accurate, then immigration (and how to stop it) is a major concern for ordinary Middle Englanders, and politicians ignore it at their peril. Well, ‘majority opinion’ does not necessarily equate to ‘right opinion’. It is only a generation or two ago that German opinion was happy to see Jews and other minorities as sub-human and expendable.

Fraser recalls the difficult and embarrassing question Jesus put to people who probably didn’t like the implcit answer: “Who is my neighbour?” Those who have done RE in school will know that this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also the title of the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Church of England ahead of the last election – which the government (then and now) deepy resented.

But, the question hangs in the air like a bad smell. Get beneath the rhetoric around immigration and we cannot avoid the fundamental challenge: what is our theological anthropology? In other words, what is a human being and why does he/she matter?

That is the question that underlies all the conflicted rhetoric about immigration.

The other question is one that will not go away: is there a strategy behind policy in this regard, or are we condemned to constantly respond to the latest and loudest voice or situation? And what is the anthropological assumption from which policy emerges? And isn’t it important that someone keeps asking the awkward questions about human significance when justifications for action seem only to be economic?

Sorry, that’s three questions.

It is an interesting week for words. Try these:

1. CLEAR: When will politicians realise that repeatedly using the word ‘clear’ does not actually make their view or policy clear? It is very odd to keep hearing it – in almost every statement. Saying something is clear doesn’t make it clear any more than saying something is good actually makes it good.

2. PLAN: Miliband and Cameron have a ‘plan’. We know this because they keep telling us. We get glimpses of what these and might look like, but we don’t get any idea of what the vision is that will shape their respective plans. On the other hand, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t have a plan, wouldn’t it? But, why do they need to keep telling us they have one?

3. AMORAL: In his Easter message, David Cameron pleads with those who disagree with his policies not to dismiss him as ‘amoral’. Fair enough. But, who has dismissed him as amoral? Disagreement with policies also surely cannot be dismissed as merely dismissive, rather than principled. Bishops seem to be a target, but our recent Pastoral Letter was also theologically and morally driven – and should not be dismissed by politicians who find that moral and theological basis inconvenient or objectionable.

4. EASTER: According to the Prime Minister, “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Oh. I thought it was about the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I applaud David Cameron’s defence of the place of faith in the public square, but he can’t escape the cultural and political dynamic that reduces (legitimate) subversive religious vision to some bland appeal for community cohesion.

5. SYMPATHY: This is what I feel for all politicians, especially party leaders. They are partly trapped in a culture that the rest of us either foster or accept – one that expects them to have a view on everything and an ability to perform an act before an audience. Driven by the media we pay for, we don’t allow leaders to change their mind, learn to learn, or develop their thinking-based-on-experience. We are the poorer for it.

It was announced last week that the BBC is to shake up its commissioning briefs (so to speak).

According to reports, four of the BBC’s most senior commissioners will have their roles closed as part of a major overhaul of the factual division. The restructuring, which is being overseen by factual commissioning controller Emma Swain, is aimed at saving money and re-focusing the division ahead of the proposed closure of BBC3.

Basically, three-and-a-half head of commissioning roles will be removed and another created. This will result in the department having six commissioning heads, compared to eight-and-a-half currently.

The bit that interests me particularly is where this puts religion in the new scheme of things. One of the posts to go is that of Aaqil Ahmed, who currently combines being head of Religion & Ethics with being commissioning editor television.

The proposed three newly created head of commissioning roles will cover:

· Head of science, business, history and religion (specialist factual)
· Head of documentaries, current affairs and BBC3
· Head of specialist features and natural history

There will be consequences for other people involved in commissioning in the factual division.

This might all make perfect sense and be a rational and productive structural change within the BBC. But, in the absence of more detail, it also raises important questions:

Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of the religious coverage? Or will this be left as a sort of “fill in” content?
How much, and what sort of, religious programming does the BBC expect of each of its tv networks?
3. Why is there no BBC news religion editor to complement the science, economics, business, political, financial, arts and sports editors?

This is not about special pleading by religious interest groups. At a time when it is impossible to understand the modern world – its politics, economics, military and humanitarian events – without understanding religion, why is religion not being prioritised as needing expert interpretation in the public and broadcast sphere? You don’t have to have a religious bone in your body to see the need for this sort of exploration and interpretation in the media. Whether personally religious or not, religion cannot be avoided by any serious observer as a serious factor in shaping – for good or ill – the actions and motivations of people and communities.

So, where will religion sit in the company of science, business and history? And who will be well-informed enough in all four of these areas to give adequate priority to each?

My questions arise from the limited information I have read. They should not be interpreted as suspicious or negative. But, the answers to these key questions will be interesting.